On my last morning in Paris, I was slowly infused with sadness while walking across the Champs de Mars toward the Eiffel Tower. At first, I blamed my rum mood on early nostalgia for the end of another journey. Having traveled six of the last twelve months, maybe I was feeling just a little weary.
Maybe not. Sadness isn’t generally a byproduct of weariness. As I walked across the parade grounds, the dome of Napoleon’s tomb glowing behind me, I realized that my blues had a particularly Parisian hue. I was feeling crushed by the weight of history.
The cloud swirled around me until I reached a polyglot peace monument that triggered an odd flashback. I recalled speaking with a man from the Emirates in front of the Churchill War Rooms Museum in London last year. He wanted to know why so many people were waiting in line. What had they come to see? I told him that the War Room was the main allied strategy site for World War II.
He asked me who won.
For a moment I assumed he was just messing with me, but there was no glint of irony in his eyes. The outcome of WWII defined the world and borders he grew up in.
He seemed to be about 50 years old, not young enough to be oblivious.
Are 50 years enough to forget? Barely 50 years passed between the Franco Prussian war and World War I. Barely 20 years passed between the world wars. The last century has seen wars at home and abroad with neither side learning anything, except how better to kill each other. Surely someone from the Middle East would understand the origins of our present tensions.
It’s said that history repeats every 80 years because it takes about three generations to forget. The math may be questionable, but prior to WWII, the region we now call Western Europe had been fighting on and off for the last 2000 years. For the last two millennia, three generations of peace were almost unheard of. It’s only recently that life expectancies have pushed some of us beyond 80 years.
My morning walk coincided with the 75th anniversary of the allied liberation of Paris. Speeches, plaques, monuments, museums may mark the memories, but according to the formula, history might be repeating soon. Predictable as clockwork, our current politics reveal a willful ignorance of past mistakes.
So maybe it’s wasn’t the weight of history but the foreboding present that had me down. But time moves forward. History can be a ghost that haunts us or a spirit that guides us.
Every day, the grandchildren of former enemies clown for photos and snap selfies in front of Eiffel’s elegant tower. Tourists from around the world wait in long lines to crowd the observation decks of this giant sundial that marks time over Paris
The crowd’s happiness was infectious. Can one embrace the moment without forgetting the past or yielding the future? I rented an electric scooter and give myself permission to try.